Mayans Disappearance – Why did the Mayans Collapse?

Mayan ruins. Image credit: jtyoder, PD image.


Mayans Disappearance – Why did the Mayans Collapse?

Mayan ruins. Image credit: jtyoder, PD image.

The civilization of the ancient Mayans once occupied a vast geographical area in Central America. Why this great civilization collapsed is one of history’s great mysteries. Remains of their existence can still be seen today, looking at them it is hard to envision how, and why such a society could crumble.

In 800 AD, there were a number of powerful cities that made up the Mayan Empire. These cities were ruled by leading elite who claimed to have descended from the stars and planets and could command powerful armies. The cities house massive populations. The Mayans built great temples, stone carvings to celebrate accomplishments and had success with their long distance trade especially for items like obsidian and jade. And yet, despite all these achievements, a hundred years later, this great empire collapsed. There are many possible theories for this.

1. Natural disasters

Mount St. Helens erupting at night by Paul Kane, PD image.

The earliest theory was that a natural catastrophe might have ruined the Mayans, perhaps an earthquake, a volcanic eruption or an epidemic disease. This theory is not very approved, mainly because the collapse of the Mayans took around 200 years and during this period, some cities failed while other thrived, at least for a little while. A natural disaster was likely to wipe out the cities almost all at once.

2. Collapse of trade routes

Teotihuacan. Image credit: Nviascan, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Mayans had complex trade routes. One reason that is supposed to have led to their collapse is the failure in their trade, especially with their central Mexican city known as Teotihuacan.

3. Agricultural catastrophes

zea mays
Image credit: Cancillería Ecuador, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mayans planted mostly corn, squash and beans. In addition, they did some fishing in the lakes and on the coasts. When the cities advanced, so did their population and their demands. The huge populations required much more food than was produced. Their trade was improved, and advanced methods of agriculture were used. These helped to cover up some of the demands but not enough, obviously. Therefore, a famine or some other agricultural catastrophe might have led to the Mayans’ downfall.

4. Wars among themselves

Maya warfare – Reproduction of Bonampak murals. Image credit: El Comandante, (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The once peaceful people might have battled against each other for some reason. Historical searches have found new evidence from stone carvings and other discoveries that the Mayans fought with one another, repeatedly and brutally. Research has revealed that city states such as Tikal, Dos Pilas, Quirigua, and Copán, often fought with each other. A war does not always bring on advantages. War would cause economic disasters and a lot more other damage, which may have caused a domino effect on the Mayan cities. For that reason, it is quite possible that the battle against each other led to their downfall.

5. Environmental changes

Ivan Aivazovsky Painting. Credit: tpsdave, PD image.
Ivan Aivazovsky Painting. Credit: tpsdave, PD image.

Sudden changes in the environment causes a lot of damage to people. A similar tragedy might have struck the Mayans. In addition to some fishing and hunting, the Mayans lived on only a handful of crops and the most basic agriculture. Droughts, floods and any such ecological changes that affected their supply of food made them very vulnerable. Researchers have found evidence of such changes, perhaps the rising of coastal water levels. When the villages the near the coasts flooded due to this the inhabitants might have shifted inland to the large cities. This would have caused a loss in the harvest from farms and fishing and at the same time straining the economy in the big cities. One change gave rise to a chain of changes, unfortunately not for the benefit of the Mayans. It is found that changes in climate are major reasons for the rise and fall of civilizations all over the world.

6. Over farming

Deforestation by Picography, PD image.

Before its collapse, the Mayan cities were flourishing with life. Perhaps 100,000 people inhabited Tikal, one of the major cities of the Mayan civilization. However, another assumption that came up regarding the Mayan’s end was also possibly this rapid advance in their society. With the rapid boost in population, the demand for food also increased. And, the farmers were under a lot of strain to meet with the demands of the society. Gradually, however, they ran out of fresh forestland to clear for their farming. The fallow cycle is a very important process in farming; it is the time taken for the soil to rebuild its nutrient supply. When the Mayan farmers ran out of land to clear, they were forced to farm in their land without sufficient fallow cycle.

Today a lot of the forestland is cut for farming or cities leading to the rise in global temperatures. The deforestation of land has caused many changes in the weather cycle. Perhaps, the Mayans faced their end for a similar reason. As the Mayan numbers increased so did their demands, therefore more and more forest was cleared for their needs (similar to now). The deforestation cut down the flow of moisture from the ground to the atmosphere leading to changes in the natural rain cycle. This in turn cut down the precipitation. These changes did not make it easy for the Mayans agriculture.

7. Droughts

Drought by _Marion, PD image.

Mayans did not have the technology to get underground water for their farming. Therefore, they depending greatly on rainfall. Archeologists have found that a series of droughts struck their land. Over time, the Maya learned to manage their water efficiently. Nevertheless, the recurring droughts were probably harsher than they could handle.

8. Epidemic diseases

16th century Aztec drawing of smallpox victims

Widespread disease can result in rapid depopulation. Mayans lived near the tropical rainforest areas and contagious diseases that are spread by parasites are common in these areas. Some experts state, that some of these diseases infect a person at a young age, and effects their health and natural growth and development. This would have in turn, made the person more vulnerable to illnesses later on in life.

Some sources state that when the Spanish invaded the Mayans, they brought with them disease (such as small pox) that that the Mayans were not familiar with. Unfortunately, the Mayans were not immune to these new illnesses. These diseases killed the people in huge numbers. Not only the Mayans were affected by this, but other Native American tribes as well, like the Aztecs.

To learn more about the Mayans, visit:

Ancient MAYA – Why the Collapse?



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